The Wild and the Tame



No, no Elf Blood, and yes, I promise it will return. I’m still hip deep in Through Fire though I THINK we’re reaching a detente. Maybe.

But lately I’ve been – through the magic of indie and mentoring – watching a lot of writers come to a level of maturity. And I thought I’d write about it, in case some of you are beginning writers.

Writing starts as a wild thing. All these things come at you, and they fall into your story because you don’t know how not to have them fall into the story. The elements just drop in. And when you’re done you think the story is brilliant.

You think that because all the elements are deeply significant TO YOU. If they weren’t you wouldn’t have dropped them in. On you they have the desired emotional effect.

Writing is not about words, and thinking it is is a great mistake. Writing is about emotions. When you first start writing, your only emotional model are the things you think deeply and feel deeply about. Writing is so difficult that only the greatest of emotional drives can push you to do it.

So you do.

And often you show it to someone and they look at it and go “Uh?”

One of my first novels (realistically novellas. I was writing long hand) at fourteen shocked me because when I showed it to my friend she didn’t cry. I’d cried wildly while writing it, but for her it was “uh.”

I’d dropped into it all my emotional triggers, see, redheaded young men, and a betrayal of innocence, and the sound of rain on the roof, and a lost kitten. How dared she not cry?

Little by little – and I’m ashamed it took me another 14 years – I came to realize that those emotional triggers are different in everyone, and that success comes from aiming for the “general triggers.”

Unfortunately me being me, and not particularly liking to commit emotional strip tease in public (what else would you call it?) I used this as an excuse to make my writing bland and anodyne, or in other words, to stay completely away from MY OWN emotional triggers and write generic.

The problem is that when you don’t have your own triggers in, when you’re not feeling it, when you’re not writing a wild, barely controllable feeling yourself, your writer won’t feel it either.

It is perfectly possible to write competent fiction without being consumed with emotion.

What is not likely is that you’ll write great fiction, the kind that stays with the reader for years and years.

And so, fourteen years after I broke in, I find myself not so much shutting out the wild: those impressions and feelings and things that come from the deep subconscious, but taming it.

Writing fiction – that is packaging emotions – as I’ve come to understand it is like translating from that space behind your eyes to the world at large. Yes, you need to be able to speak the language of those people, out there. But you also need to have something to say. And what is in you that wants to write is often so deep that the language it speaks in isn’t even fully rational.

So you have to let the irrational fall into your story – and more often your novel – and then integrate it and make it, by circumstances and surroundings, understandable to others, so they feel it with the same impact and force as you do, there, behind your eyes.

It’s not easy. It’s particularly not easy for the thinking, word-smithing self to allow the wild in. You let it in once, but only because you didn’t know any better. And it came in and painted itself all over walls, because it didn’t know any better. And it either repulsed people or, more often, confused them.

It’s much harder to let the wild in and tame it, and make it serve your purpose.

It can be done. It relies on reproducing the feelings that those things make you experience. There is a reason Heinlein left a trail of interest in redheads (not my interest, that seems to be instinctive, and before you ask, my husband is dark haired. This is good. I don’t think rationally around red-headed males) and fondness for cats in his wake, because he associated these with the same feelings they inspired in him. He ported them into other people’s brain, alone with more important concepts, such as the importance of giving one’s life to save the future (be it a nation or a child.)

I was recently talking to my older son about writing. This is normal, since he’s also a writer, and he told me that he thought for any piece of writing to be truly good, it needed to have something not quite rational in it, something not fully under the control of the creator. I think he’s right.

But I think to make it work, you need to be enough of a craftsman to bring the wild in and put a leash on it. You need to be able to tame the wild just enough it can live in other brains.

So, if you’re a beginner writer, yes, it’s likely you need more control over how these things spill into your prose.

And if you’re a more advanced writer and have filed away all the wild bits that fueled you into the beginning, let the dream time in. Let it in just enough to make your book a living dream and to impart emotions and a sense of completion to others.


  1. It’s funny how we don’t see when we’ve gone flat. I’ve been rewriting my trunk stories and publishing them. Now I’ve reached the stories from five years ago, when I thought I was getting good. I sent my Beta readers one that I thought was a nice tidy well crafted, some funny spots, some tension, didn’t need to be rewritten . . . they told me it was flat.

    So . . . I tamed down the really wild early stuff until it wouldn’t frighten people. And they like the recent stuff. I see. I decided I couldn’t stop from turning 60, but I didn’t have to grow up, and my writing improved. :: sigh :: Alas, poor tidy tale, you’re going to get rewilded right after NaNo.

  2. I like what you say about emotion…and isn’t it so true! I’ve learned that what is needed is not only for me to put in the triggers that lead the main character to emotion (whether or not they are my personal triggers) but also to use the surrounding prose to lead the reader to understand why those triggers are important.

    So that by the time the main character encounters the lost kitten, the reader will know why a lost kitten is cry-worthy and they will cry.

    Or at least, that’s the idea. How to do this? Still a work in progress.

  3. I wanted to say this was really great. Nothing much to disagree about or refine or comment, though. But a really important reminder not to refine all the life out of stories. I’m sure I’m far from the only person who read it and thought… yeah… that.

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